Tuesday, 30 October 2012

New battle for next army chief

Top: Lt Gen Sanjiv Chachra (at left) with Gen Bikram Singh; Bottom: Lt Gen Dalbir Singh

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 30th Oct 12

The dust has barely settled after General VK Singh’s Supreme Court battle to be army chief for another year. Now another senior army general is approaching court with a petition that, if accepted, could make him the next army chief instead of Lt Gen Dalbir Singh, the Eastern Army commander who is currently in line.

Business Standard has learned that Lt Gen Ravi Dastane, currently the Deputy Chief of the tri-service Integrated Defence Staff, will shortly file a petition with the Armed Forces Tribunal, a high-court level legal body that adjudicates on military matters.

“My client has been unfairly denied the appointment of army commander, for which he fulfilled every condition. Instead, a post was kept vacant for Lt Gen Dalbir Singh who was under a vigilance ban. This was procedurally incorrect, and I will request the Honourable court to set it aside,” says Major (Retired) Sudhansu Pande, who will represent Gen Dastane in court.

After commanding the Leh-based 14 Corps in 2011-12, Gen Dastane is eligible to be appointed an army commander, a pre-requisite for becoming army chief. The army has seven commands: six geographical (northern, western, south-western, southern, central and eastern); and one functional command, the Army Training Command or ARTRAC. There is also the tri-service Andaman & Nicobar Command, which is commanded in turn by officers from the army, navy and air force.

The key date in the current dispute is 31st May 2012, when two army commanders’ posts fell vacant with the retirement of former army chief, Gen VK Singh, and the western army commander, Lt Gen Shankar Ghosh. Army records examined by Business Standard indicate that the three senior-most generals on that day who were eligible to become army commanders (the pre-requisite being that they must have commanded a corps) were, in order of seniority: Lt Gen Dalbir Singh; followed by Lt Gen Sanjiv Chachra; followed by Lt Gen Ravi Dastane.

As was widely reported in the media at the time (and corroborated by Major Pande), Lt Gen Dalbir Singh was under a discipline and vigilance (DV) ban, having received a show-cause notice from the former army chief, Gen VK Singh, for a botched operation by the 3 Corps Intelligence Unit under Dalbir’s command.

With Dalbir ineligible for elevation because of the DV ban, the army appointed Chachra as western army commander (MS Branch signal 388218/2012/MS(X)/79 dated 30th May 12). Dastane, however, was not given the second army commander vacancy. Instead, it was kept vacant until Lt Gen Dalbir Singh’s show cause notice was nullified on 8th June by Gen Bikram Singh, who had taken over as army chief.

On 15th June, Lt Gen Dalbir Singh was appointed the eastern army commander through MS Branch signal 388246/2012/MS(X)/94 dated 15th Jun 12. Two weeks later, the MS Branch restored his seniority of 1st June 2012, through MS Branch letter A/45751/2012/LG/Army Cdr/EC/MS(X) dated 24th June 12.

Dastane’s Statutory Complaint to the MoD, filed on 6th August, objects to the differential standards applied, in which one vacancy was filled by appointing Lt Gen Chachra, while “reserving” one vacancy for Lt Gen Dalbir Singh, and granting him retrospective seniority.

“They appointed Lt Gen Chachra because he was retiring on 31st May 12. But my client was as eligible as him, and if Chachra was considered for army commanders’ appt on 31st May, that concession should also have been given to me. The government could have taken a stand that we will not appoint anyone before Dalbir’s show-cause notice is resolved. But they considered and appointed Chachra,” points out Pande.

The next army commander’s vacancy arises only on 31st January, by when Dastane would have less than two years of residual service, rendering him ineligible as per current guidelines to be appointed army commander.

Dastane’s lawyer says that his petition to the Armed Forces Tribunal will plead for his promotion as army commander with effect from 1st June 12, and that he be physically appointed to head the next army command that falls vacant.

If this is granted, says Dastane’s lawyer, the general will have a strong legal case to demand seniority above Dalbir Singh, who was appointed only on 15th June. That would make Dastane the senior-most qualified lieutenant general on 31st July 2014, when the current chief, Gen Bikram Singh, retires. The MoD convention has long been to appoint the senior-most qualified officer to succeed an outgoing chief.

The MoD’s viewpoint, say ministry sources, is that Lt Gen Dalbir Singh’s claim was alive on 1st June, though subject to a decision on his show-cause notice. The MoD, therefore, left one army commander’s vacancy unfilled, in anticipation of a decision on the show-cause notice.

Wake up, generals!

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 30th Oct 12

The Indian Army fish is rotting from the head. Memories are still fresh of the bruising confrontation earlier this year between the politically ambitious General VK Singh and an inept government that had precipitated a civil-military firestorm over the army chief’s quest for an extra year in office. Now, as Broadsword reports (see article above) another aggrieved general is going to court in his quest for the top job.

The current chief, General Bikram Singh, who took over from the divisive General VK Singh in June, has singularly failed to apply a healing touch and to undo the partisanship his predecessor unleashed. Most new bosses, even sports coaches, are expected to provide a new direction. In five months on the job, General Bikram Singh’s new direction consists only of orders that officers must greet each other with the salutation of “Jai Hind”, instead of merely giving each other the time of day. The new chief also wants meetings to end with everyone chorusing “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.

Intelligence reports have not yet confirmed that the Pakistani and Chinese militaries are quaking in their boots.

Let us be charitable; perhaps General Bikram Singh needs more time. His arrival in Delhi was traumatic and uncertain, since his predecessor assiduously sabotaged his elevation in the internecine fighting that now seems to be a part of the game. Once in Delhi, the new chief’s priority was to set himself up in the five-star style that now defines our culture of generalship. In his first days in the hallowed office of legends like General KC Thimayya and Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the new chief and his staff busied themselves with putting together a retinue of a dozen waiters, cooks, dhobis and assorted tradesmen to sustain life in Army House.

Called upon for retainers, a bevy of army formations milked out these retainers from combat units, where tough young officers and the legendary Indian jawan have learned how to make do with the dwindling resources that their own generals leave them. At least two senior flag rank officers personally screened the men who would serve their chief, knowing that a spilt drink or over-salted soup could reverberate unpleasantly in their own careers.

The chief will naturally deny this since none of these tradesmen are officially posted to Army House, his tony residence on New Delhi’s leafy Rajaji Marg. Conveniently, this entourage is on “temporary duty” with army units in the capital. But any visitor to Army House would find them working there, just as visits to many army posts and picquets would find combat soldiers cooking and washing instead of training and patrolling, simply because their cook or dhobi is languishing in Delhi.

This travesty faces no resistance from subordinate generals, many of whom are hardly angels themselves. Lieutenant General Nobel Thamburaj, who headed the Southern Army, was arrested by the CBI for gross irregularities concerning defence land. Two army chiefs, Generals Deepak Kapoor and NC Vij, along with several army commanders, received illegal flats in Mumbai’s infamous Adarsh Housing Society. Lieutenant General Shankar Ghosh, the Western Army commander until June, had his medical category downgraded last year, entitling him to disability pension. But when General VK Singh’s confrontation with the government made dismissal a possibility, Ghosh (then the senior-most army commander) upgraded his medical category to be eligible for a move to Army House.

If the generals believe that these shenanigans go unnoticed by junior officers or the rank and file, they are mistaken. The recent face-offs between officers and enlisted men in military bases near Samba, Amritsar and Leh suggest a decline in the ironclad faith that the army jawan has always had in his leaders. Today’s culture of entitlement at the top, where funds, resources and manpower are poured into supporting the five-star lifestyles of a few dozen senior generals, threatens to seep downwards poisoning the entire system. It is difficult to remain idealistic, motivated and dead straight --- the defining characteristics of young Indian officers --- when so much wrongdoing is evident at the top. Even honest officers are inevitably corrupted by a system in which outright financial dishonesty is condoned as “perks and privileges of office”.

As worrying as the corruption is the lack of intellectual direction that generals provide the army’s young leaders. This was evident from the recent flood of chain emails between mid-level and junior officers, expressing outrage that the army was being blamed in the media for the 1962 debacle. In the intellectual desert that the generals have made the army, every red-blooded officer has bought into the “Haqeeqat myth”, in which gallant soldiers, badly deployed by incompetent politicians and bureaucrats, mowed down hordes of Chinese before laying down their lives. While this is true in several cases, there are many more cases of entire Indian sub-units fleeing from strong defensive positions into waiting Chinese ambushes. Any professional military studies its defeats even more deeply than its victories. But professional study is not on the army’s agenda. The generals believe that officers and men must be busy with creating the illusion of command success, howsoever transient. With no time to read or guidance and inspiration from the top, human development is merely a buzzword.

Preening incongruously amidst this crumbling edifice, General Bikram Singh has taken his media managers’ ill-considered advice that controversies are best dealt with by avoiding the press. General VK Singh’s mistake lay in seeking out the media say the same advisors who had advised the previous chief. But with controversy increasingly swirling, the army’s leadership can no longer deal with its growing image problem by sticking its head in the sand.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Murky helicopter deal shadow on billion dollar torpedo sale

(Photo courtesy flugzeuginfo.net: the AgustaWestland AW101 helicopter that is giving Finmeccanica sleepless nights

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 29th Oct 12

Italian defence company, Finmeccanica, is grappling with allegations that kickbacks were paid in group company AgustaWestland’s Euro 560 million (Rs 3,880 crore) sale to India of twelve AW101 VVIP helicopters, which are intended to fly Indian dignitaries in safety and comfort.

Given the MoD’s penchant for “blacklisting” arms vendors suspected of wrongdoing, the defence industry is watching developments with bated breath. Any ban on Finmeccanica would mean that recent contracts won by group companies would be up for grabs again.

Hanging by a thread is a torpedo contract won by Finmeccanica company, WASS, which could very well be worth a billion dollars. On the verge of being signed is a Rs 1,700 crore contract for 98 Blackshark heavyweight torpedoes for the navy’s six Scorpene submarines. This could lead to an automatic order for 98 more torpedoes for the navy’s next six conventional submarines that will be built under Project 75I. And India’s nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet, which will feature six submarines like the INS Arihant, would require another 98 torpedoes. At stake here, therefore, is more than Rs 5,000 crore.

The heavyweight torpedo is the Scorpene’s primary armament against enemy warships. Fired from six torpedo tubes, a battery propels it through the water, homing in on vessels that are up to 50 kilometres away.

India’s order is make-or-break for the world’s two big builders of electrical torpedoes --- WASS and German company, Atlas Electroniks. “This potential Indian order is crucial for the future of the heavyweight electrical torpedo industry. It is larger than all the other international orders combined,” says an expert on the global naval weapons trade.

Atlas Electroniks has repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, challenged the MoD’s Jan 12th 2010 selection of WASS’s Blackshark torpedo, at the expense of Atlas’ Seahake torpedo. On Jan 19th, Atlas complained officially to Shashi Kant Sharma (who headed the MoD’s acquisition wing and is now the defence secretary) accusing the MoD of rigging the selection to favour WASS; Atlas, says the complaint, was brought in only to create a false impression of multi-vendor procurement.

Atlas says the MoD’s tender (Request for Proposal, or RfP) makes the vendor “responsible for seamless integration and/or interface of the torpedo with the (Scorpene submarine’s) combat system.” The Blackshark alone fulfilled this requirement, since it was developed by WASS in collaboration with DCNS, which builds the Scorpene.

This, pointed out Atlas, violates the Defence Procurement Procedure, which states (in Para 13) that the user requirements “must not prejudice the technical choices by being narrow and tailor made.”

Atlas buttresses its allegations of a rigged procurement by pointing out that the MoD’s Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) had cleared its plan for integrating the Blackhake torpedo into the Scorpene submarine; but then rejected it in field trials (termed No Cost No Commitment, or NCNC trials) in which the torpedo was physically operated and verified). If the TEC had rejected Atlas, this would have been single-vendor procurement, requiring a special sanction. But the DPP (Para 70(a) of Chapter 1) says that if more than one vendor is cleared by the TEC, the procurement would not be deemed single-vendor even if only one vendor clears the user trials.

“We now have got the strong impression that a procedure has been engineered here, where ATLAS has been taken through to the NCNC stage with an intention of rejecting ATLAS at this stage. Unfortunately, the reason for rejection conflicts with what has previously been accepted by the TEC and approved by the MOD”, Atlas wrote to the Acquisitions Wing.

Atlas’ flurry of complaints to the MoD’s Acquisitions Wing; the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC); and to Minister of State for Defence MM Pallam Raju, have all been rejected.

Sources close to WASS point out that MoD had little choice but to lay down that the torpedo must be compatible with the Scorpene, since the torpedo was being bought for use in that submarine.

DCNS, the Scorpene vendor, which had also co-developed the Blackshark with WASS, wrote to the MoD warning that the Indian Navy might face a delay in the first two Scorpene submarines if Atlas’ Blackhake torpedo was to be integrated onto them. At that stage, the Scorpene programme was already running three years late.

The outcome: in field trials, the MoD rejected Atlas’ plan for integrating the Blackhake onto the Scorpene, a plan that it had accepted during technical evaluation. And WASS’s commercial bid for the Blackshark torpedo was the only one that the MoD opened.

“The Italians and the French obviously worked together to make this happen. And this has opened the door for WASS to charge an arbitrary price, since this has become a single vendor procurement,” says Commodore Arvind Mathur, the former head of the Scorpene Project who has worked with Atlas Electroniks on this tender.

WASS was contacted for comments but refused to make any statement.

The flow of leaks from an Italian investigation into Finmeccanica’s Indian dealings has placed the MoD on edge. And amongst those with stakes in this contract, nobody has forgotten that on March 05th 2012, the MoD had banned four global arms vendors from doing business with the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), even though wrongdoing has not been proved.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Former, present army chiefs rapped in defence ministry audit

The generals complain about excessive financial oversight. They have only themselves to blame as it is set to become even more onerous

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 24th Oct 12

A wide-ranging audit by the defence ministry’s official auditors, the Controller of Defence Accounts (CDA), has sharply criticised the mismanagement of funds by the army’s senior-most commanders. Former army chief (and now anti-corruption crusader) General VK Singh, and the current army chief, General Bikram Singh, are amongst those that the CDA incriminates in financial mismanagement.

Defence Minister AK Antony has responded by curbing the financial powers of army commanders. These generals must now clear proposed purchases from a Financial Advisor (FA), who will be a civilian official in the MoD. The army often complains about excessive financial oversight; now this is set to become even more onerous.

Business Standard has reviewed a copy of the CDA’s audit report, which has not been made public by the MoD. The MoD and the army both declined to comment on the report and its fallout.

The audit relates to special funds allocated to the army’s six theatre commanders, including money that they can expend under the Army Commander’s Special Financial Powers (ACSFP) for “urgent procurement in situations of operational urgency”. This is not the first time that mismanagement of these funds by senior generals has been flagged. In 2008, then army chief General Deepak Kapoor allegedly scuttled a probe into his expenditure of these funds during his tenure as northern army commander. Kapoor’s famously upright successor, Lt Gen HS Panag, who initiated the probe, was summarily shifted from northern command to central command.

The defence minister had backed General Kapoor in 2008, but this time Antony himself has ordered the CDA, the MoD’s apex accounting and audit body, to audit the expenditure of special funds by the army’s theatre commanders. The northern army commander, engaged in year-round operations, has the largest annual budget of Rs 125 crore. The eastern army commander gets Rs 50 crore per annum. The western, south-western, central and southern army commanders get Rs 10 crores each.

Operationally committed commands also get “General Service funds”, meant for generating military intelligence. These funds, which amount to tens of crores, are not subject to any audit.

General Bikram Singh, the current chief, and his predecessor General VK Singh, both commanded the eastern army during the period that the audit covers: 2009-2010 and 2010-2011.

The CDA audit, which covers 55 financial transactions, reports violations to the tune of Rs 103 crores. Worryingly, this might be just the tip of the iceberg. The audit report notes that, “None of the Army Commanders have furnished complete data on the total number of cases where delegated financial powers were exercised by them under various heads. They have forwarded data relating to those sanctions only which costed Rs 50 Lakh and above.”

The vast majority of irregularities relate to the Northern Command. Bizarrely, the purchase of milk forms a major component of the auditors’ objections. But the CDA has also pointed to the purchase of items from “trading firms/agents instead of directly from OEM vendors,” in violation of army regulations. The audit report also notes that the supply of these items is delayed “in practically all cases.” This, according to the report, “substantially defeated the objective for which these (financial) powers were delegated to command HQrs (headquarters).”

The CDA audit notes the fact that the failure of regular military procurement channels often forces army commanders to make emergency purchases under special financial powers. It states that, “If stores are made available in time, it would not be necessary for Army Commanders to exercise these powers.”

Defence experts point out that the army’s logistics system remains a relic of the 1950s and 1960s, when few supplies were available in remote border areas. The tradition of central, rather than local, logistics still continues, even though areas like Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh now have significant local infrastructure.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Setback for private defence industry. The future of the Future ICV project looks gloomy

MoD might re-tender ambitious Future Infantry Combat Vehicle project, 2 years after calling for and getting bids

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 22nd Oct 12

The private sector’s much tom-tommed opening into defence production, via the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV), intended to replace the army’s 2,600 BMP-2s at an estimated cost of Rs 50,000 crore, faces an uncertain future. The defence ministry (MoD) is contemplating scrapping the current tender and restarting anew. This comes after sitting for two years on the FICV proposals from three private sector consortia and one public sector entity.

In early 2010, the MoD invited Tata Motors, the Mahindra Group, Larsen & Toubro and the MoD-owned Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) to submit proposals to develop an FICV, a lightly armoured vehicle that carries infantry into battle alongside tank columns. After evaluating the four proposals, the MoD was to short-list two “development partners” who would then compete to develop a prototype each. The better of the two would be selected for the army.

But the MoD’s Acquisitions Wing, which must make the short list, now complains that the tender (called an Expression of Interest, or EoI) did not define the criteria by which the winners would be selected. It wants a fresh EoI to be issued, with the criteria specified.

The wing cites the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) of 2008, where Para 22 of the “Make” category, covering the FICV project, says: “The EoI should also lay down the broad parameters of the evaluation process and acceptance criterion for the system under development.”

But the MoD brass realises that cancelling the EoI (drawn up in the ministry) and going back to 2010 would involve a serious loss of credibility. Besides, the “Make” category itself outlines the acceptance criteria, specifying that, “the contribution of the Indian industry in the critical technology areas should be the key criterion in assessment of various proposals.”

The three private sector companies worry that restarting afresh would result in the loss of at least 18 months to two years, as the MoD prepares a new EoI and then goes through a fresh evaluation process. Meanwhile, the project teams the proposed vendors have set up for the project would continue to bleed money.

“We have already spent about Rs 28 crores on the FICV project. Now we will have to evaluate our options to see how this programme is going to roll out. It has already been delayed by two years and we foresee at least another year’s delay,” says Brigadier (Retired) Khutab Hai, who heads the Mahindra Group’s defence business.

The “Make” category of the DPP lays down the procedure for Indian industry to develop “high technology, complex systems”, in order to “ensure Indigenous Research, Design, Development and Production of capabilities sought by the Armed Forces.”

It also mandates that the MoD will fund 80% of the cost of developing each of the two FICV prototypes, while the short-listed vendors will pay 20% each. While the cost of developing and manufacturing 2600 FICVs can only be roughly estimated, senior executives from two of the competing companies estimate that the bill would add up to about Rs 50,000 crores. This makes it India’s biggest-ever indigenous project.

According to the EoI, reviewed by Business Standard, the FICV has been conceived as a multi-role platform that must perform three roles. Firstly, it must be a battle-taxi that provides “mobility in battle for infantry, so that it can keep pace with armour.” Secondly, it must “(p)rovide fire-support to the assaulting/dismounted infantry,” i.e. spray the enemy with machine gun and cannon fire as the dismounted infantrymen charge at them. Thirdly, and most ambitiously, the FICV should hold its own on the mechanised battlefield, even against much more heavily armed tanks. According to the specifications, the FICV should “destroy enemy tanks, infantry or fortifications in conjunction with armour or independently.”

The FICV must also have “adequate amphibious capability for crossing of water obstacles like canals, rivers and stretches of sea”; and be “air portable” (i.e. in a transport aircraft’s cargo hold, or slung under a helicopter with chains). Its firepower must include a “fire-and-forget” third generation missile, a cannon and machine guns, which are operated through a “digital fully integrated fire control system with state of the art sensors and all weather surveillance devices.”

This would allow the FICV to destroy enemy tanks more than 4 kilometres away, well before the tank can engage the FICV with its main gun. The EoI also demands the capability to destroy “attack helicopters and low flying fixed wing aircraft.”

Saturday, 20 October 2012

1962: How China lost the battle for hearts

China's well-coordinated hearts-and-minds campaign was greeted with suspicion by the people of NEFA (now Arunachal)

By Ajai Shukla and Sonia Trikha Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Oct 12

It was the 19th of November, 1962. The sounds of battle were still audible, echoing through the valleys. The previous two days had been nightmarish for 9-year-old Phurpa Lhamu, an eruption of artillery and machine gun fire in the hills around the idyllic Sangti valley. Chinese columns were converging here, pushing back the Indian Army frontally. Simultaneously they were rounding the Indians, ambushing them from the rear and converting every bottleneck into a bloody killing ground.

Even more terrifying for Phurpa was the absence of the village youngsters, who the Gaon Bura (the village elder, referred to universally as GB) had rounded up and sent off to haul ammunition to the army’s forward posts. For three days and nights, almost without a break, they had ferried supplies to the Indian picquets at Thembang and Chhander. This had served no purpose; the advancing Chinese had blown away those positions in a night. And the retreating Indians had walked into their ambushes.

Peering out of her window in the early morning light, Phurpa saw two lines of soldiers, in battle fatigues, moving cautiously down the twin spurs that led down to Sangti. At first she assumed they were Indians but, as they came closer, she realized that they walked differently, more spread out and weapons at the ready. Even when they were in plain sight and she could see their Chinese features, the awful reality took some time to sink in: the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was here in Sangti. The Indian Army was gone. Nobody knew, or was ready for, what might lie ahead.

As the Chinese crossed the Sangti Nala and approached the village, Phurpa saw the elders walk out to greet the Chinese, holding out khatas (white silk scarves) in the traditional Buddhist welcome. Phurpa could hardly believe her eyes. These were the monsters who, just three years earlier, had tried to kill His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, causing tens of thousands of Tibetans to flee their homeland, passing through the Dirang and Sangti valleys on their way to new lives as refugees in India.

 Phurpa Lhamu from Sangti recounts her experiences under Chinese occupation

But here the Chinese were, bowing politely and accepting khatas, behaving for the world like honoured visitors. And for a full month to come, they would continue to live in the area, cultivating the villagers, fetching water, harvesting crops and even holding feasts. But the PLA would never succeed in gaining the trust of locals or in becoming a part of their lives.

In all the writing that has come out of the 1962 war, and in the popular Indian imagination, that disaster appears to have unfolded in a freezing, uninhabited, high-altitude desert where a star cast of ill-prepared soldiers struggled manfully to implement ill-judged orders from misguided politicians and bureaucrats. This is true to some extent in Ladakh. But the North East Frontier Agency, or NEFA --- as Arunachal Pradesh was called in those days --- is also the story of an Indian people who were abandoned to the Chinese by the Indian army and administration that had neither the grit nor the capacity to stay with the people that they had made their own.

Forgotten in the shame of 1962 are the stories of the Monpas of Monyul; the Membas of Menchuka and the Mishmis of Walong. These are the only Indians who have lived under foreign occupation since independence.

And when Indians cringe at Nehru’s abandonment of Assam in the face of China’s advance --- his infamous response, in an All-India Radio Broadcast, was, “My heart goes out to the people of Assam” --- how much shoddier then was the treatment of NEFA’s people who did not even rate a pro forma mention.

On 22nd October, the Chinese swept into Tawang, quickly consolidating control over that densely populated valley. In a second offensive on 18-20th November, the PLA captured the areas beyond Sela --- the fertile Dirang valley, Bomdi La, the Rupa-Tenga valleys, Kalaktang, and all the way down to the eponymous Foothills, on the border of Assam. After declaring a unilateral cease-fire on the midnight of 20th November, the Chinese stayed in Dirang and Tawang till the end of December, governing Tawang for two months, and Dirang for a month. Simultaneously, the PLA occupied the Menchuka valley, and the Walong valley, along with small enclaves elsewhere. Here too, they governed till the end of December.

Telling the story of China’s short-lived rule over these areas is not just an act of catharsis or self-realisation. It is also the story of India’s only real victory of 1962, where China’s spectacular military success was rendered meaningless by the refusal of NEFA’s people to warm to the conquerors or to succumb to their blandishments. In that war, as in those of the 21st century conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, victory was less about destroying military forces, than about winning the public affection.

The PLA had come prepared to fight, and also to win hearts and minds through a coordinated, made-in-Beijing, public relations campaign. This was uniformly implemented, down to the last phrase, across all the areas that they occupied in 1962. Our research across the Tawang area; in Menchuka, and in Walong and Kibithoo in the eastern corner of Arunachal Pradesh, finds locals recounting exactly the same phrases that the PLA soldiers used while dealing with the people of NEFA.

In the confusion of defeat after the Namka Chu battle on Oct 20, 1962, as Monpas fled Tawang on the heels of the army and the administration, it was easy to be overtaken by the fleet-footed PLA patrols. The Monpas who were caught, and those who stayed behind because they were too poor, old or infirm to leave, found the Chinese giving them a uniform message. Tashi Khandu, who went on to become an MLA in Arunachal Pradesh, stayed on in his village, Kitpi. According to him, the Chinese would regularly say, “Our fight is with the Indian government, not with the people of Tawang. Look at you and look at us: we are the same people.”

There seemed to be little recognition, or at any rate acknowledgement, amongst the PLA soldiers and apparatchiks, of the bitter anti-Communist feeling amongst the Buddhists of NEFA (and Chinese ingress was almost entirely in Buddhist areas). With the Monpas having actually seen the Dalai Lama pass through the villages of Tawang after entering India at Khinzemane in March 1959; and after hearing first-hand from Tibetan refugees about the PLA’s brutal subjugation; there were few Monpa buyers for the PLA’s simplistic thesis that the Chinese and the Monpas were one people.

But the Monpas’ inherent politeness, combined with a sense of self-preservation, held back the local people from countering the Chinese propaganda. As Phurpa Tsering of Dirang points out, “Our elders met the Chineses soldiers with khatas (silk scarfs), not because they were happy to see them but because they were community leaders, responsible for their people, who had to work with whoever was in charge.”

Along with political commissars, the PLA contingents in each area were equipped with Monpa-speaking translators, usually Monpas from Tsona just across the McMahon Line. This made the locals even more suspicious of the Chinese. Tashi Khandu says, “Since they had translators, none of us spoke while the Chinese were offered tea. And when we spoke, we made sure we said nothing that would anger them.”

But the Chinese --- who favourably contrasted the Monpas’ cheerful cooperation with the sullen resentment that they continued to face in Tibet after the 1959 revolt --- believed they were making headway in winning hearts and minds. During the period of occupation, the PLA’s young soldiers routinely offered to help locals till their fields, harvest the crop, and even gifted them clothes. Leaving a vessel full of water on the doorstep of an elderly Monpa was another PLA tactic.

Even as the Monpas subconsciously rejected these gestures, there was admiration for the discipline that the PLA displayed, especially when contrasted with the unseemly flight of the defeated Indian Army. The Chinese would always dress smartly, and they would never ask the locals to work as porters, something that the Indian Army of that time regarded as a natural privilege. Although most of the Chinese soldiers were very young, not a single case was recounted of misbehaviour with Monpa women. Anything taken from the locals was scrupulously paid for.

But while generating respect, the PLA failed to generate trust. As the Chinese pull out neared, the PLA invited local notables for bara khanas (community feasts) in all the big villages. There was little choice but to show up, but as one invitee recounts, “We drank their liquor, but nobody ate their food. Everybody believed the Chinese were serving us dog meat”.

Poised to leave in December, before the passes were closed by snowfall, the PLA sent out a farewell message: “We are going now but rest assured, we will return. This is a part of China and we know that you are not happy with what the Indian government has done for you. But the Chinese government will be different. We will look after your interests.”

Lekie, who lives in Thembang village on the route of Chinese invasion, describes her response: We were happy that China was leaving and that the government of India would come back. Even though India’s officials and army had run away we knew they would do good for us when they returned. But if the Chinese were to stay, we were afraid that they would kill us.”

Such steadfastness from a people who had experienced Indian administration for barely a decade, and who had very recently been abandoned, did not occur by accident. Its stemmed from India’s restrained and sensitive non-interference with local tradition, a policy backed by Nehru himself, his powerful tribal affairs advisor, Verrier Elwin, and a superb cadre of officers that was organised in 1953 into the Indian Frontier Administrative Service. The sophistication of this policy is reflected in an entry in Elwin’s diaries, which remarks on Nehru’s belief that this frontier was not necessarily India, but it could be made so.

That belief has been vindicated. The People’s Republic of China continues to struggle in Tibet, the underlying reason for China’s military attack in 1962. Notwithstanding India’s military defeat, Arunachal is today a full-fledged and enthusiastic Indian state and the only one amongst the Seven Sisters of the northeast that has never had a separatist movement. In 1962, the Chinese guns spoke, scattering the Indians. But the people of NEFA spoke too, and they have won India the war.

On board the Mhadei: the voyage ahead

Top: Dilip Donde and Abhilash Tomy, guru and chela, pose together on the eve of Tomy's epic voyage

By Ajai Shukla
On board the Mhadei, at INS Mandovi, Goa

Even the most hard-boiled sailors believe that it takes an unusual, and somewhat eccentric, person to circle the globe in a sailboat, dealing single-handedly for months on end with the capriciousness of the wind, the waves and the weather. Three years ago, Commander Dilip Donde, a naval officer, became the first Indian to sail solo around the world, making his epic journey in a 56-foot, Indian sailboat, the Mhadei. On Nov 1st, Donde’s former crewmember, Lieutenant Commander Abhilash Tomy, will set sail from Mumbai on an even more hazardous voyage: a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the world.

Less than 80 humans have completed such a passage. Compared to this, more than 525 humans have travelled to space; and some 500 mountaineers summit Mount Everest during an average climbing season.

Like no other sport, solo sailing pits a lone human against the elements, with the dice loaded heavily in favour of nature. The inflexible conditions that govern a solo, non-stop circumnavigation require Tomy to traverse at least 21,600 nautical miles (or 40,000 kilometres) under sail, without any form of engine power, with no halts, starting and ending at the same port, and crossing the three great southern capes: Cape Leeuwin (Australia); Cape Horn (South America); and Cape Agulhas (Africa).

The Mhadei, sailing into Cape Town on Dilip Donde's circumnavigation in 2010

I sail out on the Mhadei in Goa, as Donde and Tomy carry out a pre-voyage check. They are clearly a comfortable team, chattering constantly yet giving each other respect and space. Donde the veteran is a grizzled greybeard, tanned and fit, with an easy laugh that lights up his face. Tomy is 33, at that magical cusp of life where youth has married experience and confidence. Lithe, powerful, alert and yet strangely calm, he glides barefoot around the Mhadei like a gazelle on steroids.

It is hot and still outside Goa, and Tomy scours the sea with a weather eye. “There’s some breeze,” he calls to Donde, pointing to a patch of sea that appears darker than where we are. We head there and the Mhadei’s sail billows as it catches the wind.

The calm Goa sea will be a distant memory as Tomy heads south across the Indian Ocean, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn to the longitudes south of Australia and New Zealand. This is the dreaded Southern Ocean where there is no land to stop the freezing trade winds, only Antarctica a couple of thousand miles away. The trade winds push forward a sailboat, but also pile up the ocean into forbidding mountains and valleys of water. Through this grey landscape Tomy will steer the Mhadei, a speck in the bleakness that must somehow keep afloat.

Mhadei sails past the Royal Navy destroyer, HMS York, near the Falklands Islands

Donde inexplicably smiles as he describes sailing the Mhadei through the Southern Ocean, rolling and pitching in an unending succession of 20-foot waves that are almost as tall as the main mast. One moment the boat wallows in a trough, with 20-foot walls of water on either side; seconds later the boat crests the wave, providing a view of unbroken ocean. And then it drops sickeningly into the next trough with the sailor wondering whether it can ever climb out.

What about seasickness, I ask queasily. “The only way to avoid being sea-sick is to remain sitting under a tree,” says Tomy, pokerfaced.

* * * *

The saga of the Mhadei has been the story of four unusual men. It began in the imagination of one of the navy’s crustiest old salts, Vice Admiral Manohar Prahlad Awati, who, from his retirement home near Pune badgered successive naval chiefs about the need for the Indian Navy to achieve the Holy Grail of sailing: solo circumnavigation. In 2006, Admiral Arun Prakash gave the green signal, allocating a Rs 6 crore budget and asking Awati to mastermind the project. The navy sent out a call for volunteers.

Enter Commander Dilip Donde, a diving expert posted in the Andamans, who had sailed only recreationally. He claims he volunteered to “be a part of the project” but, since he was the only volunteer, ended up as the skipper.

“I broke the cardinal rule that I had been taught since I was a cadet: never volunteer! Why, I don’t know. Maybe, at 38, I faced an early midlife crisis. Or maybe it just sounded like a fun idea,” he laughs.

For Awati, though, this was deadly serious and he quickly enlisted the expertise of one of the world’s greatest sailors, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, a yachting hall-of-fame member who first completed a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe in 1968-69, when he sailed his Mumbai-built teak-wood boat, Suhaili, around the world in 313 days.

Donde was sent to the UK, where he worked with Knox-Johnston, learning from scratch about building and kitting out an ocean-going sailboat and sailing it single-handedly through the worst storms on the seas. In consultation with Knox-Johnston --- whose imagination had been captured by the project --- Donde framed the specifications for what would become the Mhadei.

“The Indian Navy was making a statement to the world. So we decided not to make the boat in steel; we chose high-tech fibreglass instead,” he says.

With a design bought from Dutch bureau Van Der Stadt, the navy had then to identify a boat-builder who could construct a vessel that would survive even a battering from the Southern Ocean. Big warship builders like Goa Shipyard turned down the offer as too small and commercially unviable. That was when an extraordinary shipbuilder, Ratnakar Dandekar, who was running a tiny shipyard called Aquarius Fiberglas Private Ltd, walked onto the project. The Mhadei had found its mother.

* * * *

 Left to Right: Lt Cdr Abhilash Tomy, Vice Admiral MP Awati, Ratnakar Dandekar, Cdr Dilip Donde

We take the ferry to Divar Island, the whitewashed churches and convents around the Basilica of Bom Jesus peeping over a curtain of lush green palms. Here, in the shadow of the Konkan Railway bridge over the Mandovi River (called the Mhadei at its source in Karnataka), Dandekar welcomes us to Aquarius Fiberglas.

“I can honestly say that I had no idea of what I was taking on when I contracted to build the Mhadei. But I just knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime project. No boat of this quality and endurance had ever been built in India. Today, while I am still a small shipbuilder, nobody questions my technological credentials,” says Dandekar.

Donde describes Dandekar’s embrace of the project, an enthusiasm that quickly swept away commercial considerations. Dandekar listens with a quizzical half-smile, apparently wondering why any of this should be surprising.

“The Mhadei is completely mine; I built it. When some work is required on this boat, I don’t need a tender… I feel a real attachment to this boat. Building the Mhadei has changed me as a shipbuilder, as a person and as a businessman,” he says.

The ferry to Divar Island, across the Mandovi. This river is called the Mhadei at its source in Karnataka and gives the boat its name

As we tour Aquarius, which now employs 84 workers compared to just 16 when it built the Mhadei, a special train carrying trucks to Mangalore on roll-on-roll-off wagons thunders over the bridge. I wonder: is the Mhadei a superbly planned project, or was it just blessed with worthy people?

* * * *

Now the next chapter of the Mhadei story, so far a saga of unalloyed success, will be written by Abhilash Tomy, who formed the shore support team when Donde went around the globe in 2009-10. Tomy, however, will have no shore support team; his will be a non-stop voyage. This increases the difficulty manifold, since everything that malfunctions must be repaired on board.

The Mhadei itself seems ready, a battle-tested veteran. Success, therefore, will largely rest on the skipper’s mental conditioning. “You can keep preparing for ten years. But you are only going to learn some things when you actually do it,” agrees Tomy.

The Mhadei is as sleek, high-tech and well-kept a sailboat as any I’ve seen. There are dual steering wheels, covered with Chamois leather to provides a grip even in the wettest, coldest weather. In front of the wheel is an array of instruments, including an automatic identification system (AIS), which tracks through satellite every ship on the seas, relaying its name, course, destination, vessel type, registration and crew. While much of the Mhadei’s journeys are through isolated seas, it does encounter other vessels at the chokepoints of the great capes.

Tomy recounts an incredulous radio call to Donde from a supertanker that was crossing the Cape of Good Hope in a driving storm and discovered on their AIS that a small boat, the Mhadei, was close by.

Supertanker: Confirm port of origin?

Mhadei: Mumbai

Supertanker: Confirm destination?

Mhadei: Mumbai

Supertanker: Confirm type of vessel?

Mhadei: Sailboat

Supertanker: Confirm crew?

Mhadei: One man

Supertanker: Confirm crazy!!

Apparently, this brand of gallows humour provides comfort to lone sailors! I ask Tomy whether a wife or a girlfriend will be praying for him while he sails. “As a good sailor, the first thing you learn is not to tie a knot that you cannot untie quickly,” he shoots back.

Waiting for him instead will be his mother and his father, himself a former naval officer. Twice a day, Tomy will email a “sitrep (situation report) over an INMARSAT satellite link to naval headquarters in Delhi. If he needs to send video, or talk to someone, there is a bigger FB-500 fleet broadband system. But that is expensive and Tomy is very budget-conscious.

What’s to talk, he asks? Anything that goes wrong must be fixed on board. Inside the cabin is a small workbench with a vice, and spanners hanging below, stuck into a orange rexine organiser. In another corner is the galley, the navy’s grandiose monicker for a small gas stove. On the wall are plaques, presented by authorities in places like Cape Town, Fremantle (Australia) and Littleton (New Zealand), the ports of calls for vessels like the Mhadei.

After signing the Mhadei’s visitors’ book, I leaf back through previous comments. On Feb 21st, 2009, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston had endorsed the ultimate compliment: “A nice strong boat to sail around the world!” All of us should pray that he is right.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Don’t fight 1962 all over again

The Nyamjang Chu river, just after it flows into India at Khinzemane, near the Namka Chu, where the Sino-Indian war of 1962 began 

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th Oct 12

Who won the 1962 Sino-Indian war? This might seem a fatuous question, especially to those reeling under the tsunami of gloomy articles leading into the 50th anniversary of the war that began on the Namka Chu rivulet on Oct 20th, 1962. But consider this fact: since 1962 Arunachal Pradesh has turned increasingly Indian, emphatically regarding itself a part of this country. Meanwhile, Tibet simmers resentfully as Beijing’s relationship with those easygoing people is conducted through the might of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA); a plethora of truncheon-happy Chinese paramilitaries that arrest protesters before they can protest; a demographic invasion by hundreds of thousands of ethnic Han Chinese workers; and a coercive relocation of locals that has shattered traditional pastoral lifestyles.

So how is it that, even after having been whipped in war, India is winning the peace? And that China, despite having “taught India a lesson” in 1962, and having subdued Tibet with a brutal occupation, feels challenged today from both sides of the McMahon Line --- the disputed border in the Eastern Himalayas between Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh. In Tibet, since 2008, Beijing confronts a rising tide of protest. And in India it sees a growing military build up, and a Tibetan exile organisation that amplifies worldwide the repression that China perpetuates within Tibet.

In contrast, India’s restraint and sensitivity and reluctance to use military force in establishing administration across the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) --- as Arunachal was then called --- certainly won over locals to the idea of India, but it also contained within it the seeds of the 1962 defeat. The aversion to overt demonstration of force was evident during India’s 1951 occupation of Tawang, when Assistant Political Officer, R Kathing, marched into that border town with just one platoon (36 soldiers) of the paramilitary Assam Rifles.

And at Achingmori in 1953, when Tagin tribals massacred an Assam Rifles platoon, Nari Rustomji, the Special Advisor to the Governor of Assam who administered NEFA, famously stopped Nehru from retaliating with a burn-and-slash military expedition or executing his threat to bomb the Tagins. Instead, Rustomji sent a largely civilian expedition into Tagin country, arrested the culprits, convicted them after a procedurally impeccable trial in a makeshift bamboo courthouse, and jailed them for a few years. Word spread quickly across the area.

But placing local sensibilities above national security also created the mindset that led to the 1962 defeat. The same mistrust in force that won over the local people also underlay the reluctance to deploy the army in adequate numbers, even though that was essential for backstopping an ill-considered “forward policy” that involved establishing Indian posts along a unilaterally decided border. The result: a stinging military defeat for India that undermined its image in local eyes.

Today, 50 years later, with a wealthier and more assertive India comfortable with the idea of deploying and wielding military power, it is important to remember the lessons of the 1950s in planning how to counter any Chinese adventurism. Firstly, in-your-face military deployment is not something that Arunachalis are comfortable with, even though the military is sometimes the only government that tribal people in remote areas actually see. In the 2010s and 2020s as in the 1950s and 1960s, local support for India will count for as much as military power in ensuring that Arunachal remains a part of India.

India’s military, like every self-perpetuating bureaucracy, has made a convincing case for raising four new divisions to defend the eastern sector, including two divisions that will be part of a proposed mountain strike corps. The two defensive mountain divisions are already functional, while the mountain strike corps and an armoured brigade are currently being cleared.

But no amount of soldiers can provide a foolproof defence along hundreds of kilometres of rugged mountain terrain. And in raising division after division of defensive troops, India risks falling into the Pakistan trap: getting involved in a competitive military build-up against a giant neighbour that has far greater resources of money and military power.

Instead, the Indian Army needs to rethink its strategy, relying on local partnership as in the 1950s, rather than on an overwhelming presence that could start being resented. This must involve a three-fold action plan: firstly, recruit at least twenty territorial army battalions from local tribes, which will defend their homeland fiercely against the Chinese, rather than relying on regular army battalions that are posted into these unknown areas from their bases thousands of kilometres away. These local tribal battalions must form the first line of defence.

Secondly, rather than committing the bulk of our regular army battalions into defensive deployments aimed at stopping the Chinese at the border, reorganise these formations into offensive strike groups that are geared, trained and equipped to retaliate against any Chinese incursion with counter-incursions into Tibet. There should be 8-10 such fully developed contingency plans ready for execution, along with the resources to execute them with.

Thirdly, create the infrastructure of roads and railways in Arunachal and Assam that will be needed to mobilise the offensive strike groups and transport them to the border fast enough to pre-empt any Chinese counter deployment. This is perhaps the most essential step needed, since it will serve both a military and civil purpose. In providing road connectivity to villages along the McMahon Line, we are providing a lifeline that ties them to India.

Sunday, 14 October 2012


By Ajai Shukla and Sonia Trikha Shukla
Business Standard, 13th Oct 12

Some cities, just a fortunate few, remain coloured by their history, visibly enriched by reminders of centuries gone by. Residents of Delhi like us routinely walk past 500-year old monuments with scarcely a thought for the shared past that they evoke. But on a visit to Lahore, in so many ways Delhi’s historical twin, we notice so much that we take for granted here, displayed as it is in a different, yet familiar, framework.

Bashir, our taxi-driver in Lahore, is a portly, loquacious, shalwar-clad 54-year-old with the energy and verve of someone half his age. Finding a taxi is never easy in Lahore since locals prefer auto-rickshaws, but we hit the jackpot when we chanced upon Bashir: he was a natural tourist guide. Asked to drive us around Lahore, Bashir shot back “which Lahore?” Seeing our bemused looks, he elaborated, “There is a Mughal Lahore, a British Lahore and a Pakistani Lahore”.

“Let’s start with British Lahore,” we said. It was close at hand both physically and in family consciousness; Sonia’s Lahori parents had brought her up on tales of the paradise that was their ancestral heritage. This deep-rooted Lahori pride (inexplicable to outsiders!) seems an ingrained feature of the city’s residents. When Bashir learned that Sonia’s family was from pre-partition Lahore we were adopted like prodigals. The conversation quickly switched from Urdu to Punjabi.

Driving down the leafy Mall Road, we felt the irritation ebb after our flight to Lahore the evening before. The ancient Pakistan Airlines 737-300 aircraft had developed engine trouble in Delhi, mercifully before take-off, and it had taken five hours and a component borrowed from Air India to get us to Lahore around midnight. The day before had been Youm-e-Ishq-e-Rasool (Day of Love for the Prophet), misguidedly declared by Pakistan’s government to prove that they were as good Muslims as the ones who were already rioting against Innocence of Muslims, a blasphemous film that had denigrated the Prophet. The government’s licence unleashed what was effectively state-sanctioned rioting, leading to the deaths of protesters after a large mob gathered at the US Consulate in Lahore. Washington and London, as well as others, had issued advisories against travel to Pakistan.

But today, it was sunny, pleasant and utterly normal, highlighting the astonishing ability of Pakistan and its citizens to oscillate between extremes.  Driving down Mall Road we admired the stately, whitewashed colonial-era buildings from the time when Lahore was the heart of “the north west”. From here the British administered vast swathes of the Punjab and the North West Frontier up to the Afghanistan border, the still-disputed Durand Line. Before them, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Lahore-centred empire had extended even further, well into Afghanistan.

Bashir pointed out the magnificent Dinga Singh Building, where one of Sonia’s grandfathers had worked and the National Bank building that had been the office of another. Passing Luxmi Chowk and the old High Court, we head towards the Anarkali Bazaar, the centuries-old market named after the legendary slave girl who was put to death by Emperor Akbar after Prince Salim (later Emperor Jehangir) was enraptured by her. Bashir, like us, has heard the story through the immortal film, Mughal-e-Azam, in which Dilip Kumar and Madhubala memorably played the tragic couple. Anarkali’s mausoleum is nearby, as is that of Qutb-ud-din Aibak, the Mamluk monarch who built the Qutb Minar in Delhi.

Next we come to the grand Lahore Museum, outside which stands the 14-foot-long Zamzama, the largest cannon cast in the subcontinent. Built for Afghanistan’s talismanic monarch, Ahmed Shah Durrani, legend has it that thousands of Lahori kitchen utensils were melted down for making the gun. Durrani employed the Zamzama in his destruction of the Marathas in the third battle of Panipat in 1761, the bloodiest battle ever fought till then. En route to Kabul after that victory, Durrani left the Zamzama with his governor in Lahore since he did not have a carriage strong enough to carry such a heavy gun back to Kabul. Later, it was fought over by assorted Sikh and Afghan chieftains who all believed it was a battle-winner. To this day, Afghans lewdly refer to their Casanovas as “Zamzama”.

Rudyard Kipling, who lived in Lahore from 1882 to 1887, found his earliest muse in the city, which he chronicled in The Civil and Military Gazette. Lahore figured in his magnificent tale, Kim, as the base for the young explorer’s travels across the subcontinent. The novel, in fact, opens at the Lahore Museum, with Kim perched “astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher --- the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum.”

Architecturally grand as the Lahore Museum is --- like many old buildings in Lahore, was designed by the architect, Sir Ganga Ram --- its piece de resistance is the 2nd century, Kushan sculpture of Fasting Siddhartha in the dramatically realistic style of the Gandhara School of art. Depicting Siddhartha after six years of fasting, every rib and vein carved into his emaciated frame depicts the tribulations that led to his enlightenment.

Bashir is pleased at how thrilled we are when we emerge from the museum. A devout, beard-wearing Muslim, he is a very long way away from the Taliban’s antipathy to Buddhist sculpture. Fundamentalism may be gaining ground in Pakistan, but Lahori taxi-drivers have apparently not yet bought into it. Bashir reveals that his mother was from Dehra Dun and his father from Ambala.

A short drive from the museum is Shadman Chowk, where the British hanged Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev Singh in 1931. Pakistani civil society has long agitated for renaming the place Bhagat Singh Chowk. Soon after we returned to India we learned that the Punjab government had agreed to do so.

Despite the pleasing array of Gothic and Victorian style buildings from the British Raj, time has not stood still in Lahore. The famous Gawal Mandi, a pedestrians-only food street that served sumptuous, dhaba-style, Lahori food, has been pushed out of central Lahore by security concerns.

And the old Race Course, which dates back to 1924, now has a posh continental restaurant called The Polo Lounge, owned by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar along with a sister establishment in Islamabad that overlooks the Margala Hills. This top-of-the-line eatery that has just 30 seats is billed as “The only setting of its kind where you can enjoy gourmet cuisine while watching a game of Polo.”  

We dine at The Polo Lounge as part of an Indian delegation. The tables are done up thoughtfully with ribbons in a tricolour theme; each seat has a printed menu with the Indian and Pakistani flags. The guest list includes a former Pakistani army chief, a former navy chief, and Pakistan’s most successful businessman and only dollar billionaire, Mian Mansha. Like Punjabi businessmen on both sides of the border, he is pushing for better relations and freer trade. With the polo field providing a darkened backdrop through large windows, we dine on prawn soup, forest salad, and herbed and spiced grilled fish. By the time dessert --- chocolate puddle cake --- arrives, everyone is groaning.

Good eating is an essential component of Lahori culture, dovetailing quite naturally into late rising --- no shop opens before 11.30 a.m. or closes before 11 p.m. But, after another day of sightseeing with Bashir, we have no time for shopping. Instead, another interesting evening awaits us at the home of one of Pakistan’s super-rich. Like in many wealthy Delhi homes, a large Hussain greets us as we enter. Unlike Delhi’s wealthy, though, the home has a large library with a painting by Vincent van Gogh adorning the mantelpiece! Most of the Pakistani guests lament the fruitlessness of India-Pakistan hostility and how leaders on both sides should mend fences. There is little understanding in Pakistan, and this is true from milkman to millionaire, of how much India has been alienated by cross-border terrorism, particularly 26/11.

We start late the next morning; Lahore is insidiously seeping into our systems. But the lethargy vanishes when Bashir draws up at the Badshahi mosque, which Aurangzeb built between 1671-73. Sadly, the wall outside has been recently painted, but as we enter we are overwhelmed by the sense of space, one of the greatest features of Indo-Islamic mosque architecture. Once the world’s largest mosque, the Taj Mahal and its platform would fit comfortably inside the main courtyard that accommodates one lakh worshippers. A nikaah is finishing as we arrive, a simple ceremony with a shy bride. We are offered many rounds of mithai.

In the enclosed garden outside the mosque is the Hazuri Bagh, which Maharaja Ranjit Singh (who conquered Lahore in 1799) used as his baradari or court of audience. Nearby is a red stone colonial building, the grave of Allama Iqbal, one of Pakistan’s founding heroes along with Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Ironically, and to his lasting regret, he had earlier written the stirring song, Sare Jahaan se Achha Hindustan hamaara.

Forming the backdrop to the Hazuri Bagh is the imposing Lahore Fort, or Shahi Qila, which Akbar built between 1556 and 1605. The staff there insists that we pay for tickets at the local rate of Rs 10, rather than the Rs 200 rate that foreigners pay. He says we are hum zubaan (speakers of the same language). We had last seen the fort by night in 2003, when a spectacular official dinner hosted there had transported us back into the medieval era. With mashaals (fire torches) lighting the way and enormous doorkeepers in loose black shalwar kameez, that had been like a movie set.

That night we dine at Andaaz, a tony Mughlai restaurant in the red light area of Hira Mandi that overlooks the spectacularly lit Badshahi Mosque. Sadly, the mujras (dances) that Hira Mandi was famous for have given way to Islamic austerity, but restaurants like Andaaz and Kuku’s try to capture a flavour of the place. Also visible from our tables, as we bite into juicy tandoori prawns, is the Dera Sahib Gurudwara, where the 5th guru, Arjun Dev, obtained martyrdom in the river Ravi in 1606. Highlighting the duality of India-Pakistan relations, we learn that this is where General Zia-ul-Haq housed Khalistani terrorist leaders in the 1980s, when Punjab was aflame. Suddenly my prawn tastes a little less juicy.

We say goodbye to Lahore with some regret. Change is in the air in India-Pakistan relations; but there is never any telling when another dip happens, closing down, at least temporarily, the option of travelling there again.